I occasionally have nightmares themed around the works of R.L. Stein. His books occupied a strange and fantastic niche that only the children of the ’90s could allow.
So, it’s a real treat when I get to – as a 30-year-old adult – read something by him, and it happens to be a beautifully drawn and lettered book. The star of this show is the artwork, with its soft, inviting style contradicting the horror themes of the writing. The book’s artists are masters of using color; the pastel characters popping against the dark background of the forest highlights the alienation of man vs. nature. Later, when the characters change scenes, the background catches up to match the main characters. The action scenes use color to pull your eyes around the page. In a particularly memorable scene with bees in it, the art and color fuse into one of the best pages I’ve read in a while – visual poetry.
The lettering is placed unobtrusively, and the use of color prevents confusion on who is speaking. The chapter page’s use of a 1950s-style horror movie font is a little campy, but in an endearing way. The only gripe I have is the sudden explanatory narration boxes that pop up occasionally through the book. I felt the art did a great job portraying what was going on and the extra narration pulled away from that.
Speaking of slightly campy, R.L. Stein writes in a mix of camp and horror that skates the line between scary and amusing. The book jumps back and forth tonally from a silly, shenanigan-filled romp to one of existential horror. Some of the writing reminded me a little of A Quiet Place. To be completely fair, I think the intended audience, (9-12) of this book would really enjoy the silliness.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
Stein’s best-written character is the prickly Clark who consistently is his character for better or worse. Clark pulls pranks throughout the book and never stops being kind of a jerk, but he feels consistent and alive, a real human. The Two Aliens, Juniper and Zammy, are a close second, but they have an interesting habit of being cutthroat and competent in one panel, only to come off as inept and pitiable in another. The rest of the characters feel all a little flat and more like set pieces. The kids in the book especially so, as they are literal vehicles to move the plot forward; they seem to lack agency. The parents are classic horror movie parents who are competent enough to have a job and a house but aloof enough to not actually do anything when something obviously weird happens in front of them.
The ending of the book is its strongest point. I won’t spoil how, but it really captures the R.L. Stein that still occasionally haunts my nightmares.
I’d pick this book up simply because of its fantastic art and effects. The story, while simple and a little inconsistent, provides a great vehicle for the artists to show off their chops, which they have in spades.
Creative Team: R. L. Stine (writer), Nichole Matthews (artist), Julian Totino Tedesco (cover artist)
Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Click here to purchase.